The Rise of the Franks and the Battle of Tours

The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 created a power vacuum in western Europe into which two very different bodies were pulled – the Roman Catholic Church and various Germanic kingdoms. The strongest of these new kingdoms, that of the Franks, occupied the territory that is today the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France. In 496 the Frankish king Clovis (r. 480–511) converted to Catholicism and his subsequent alliance with the papacy brought the Catholic Church’s organizational capabilities to the Germanic kingdom. Sanctioned by the pope and allied with Catholic missionaries, Frankish kings and nobles spread Catholicism and civilization east of the Rhine and ushered in three centuries of Frankish cultural and political dominance in western European affairs.

By the middle of the seventh century the Frankish government was so decentralized that wealthy and prominent men who had earlier received political appointments now viewed their positions as hereditary, creating in effect a self-perpetuating noble class. Serving the labour needs of these dukes, counts, barons and knights was an underclass of peasants. By the end of the seventh century, most peasant farmers lost their land to the nobility and became serfs, with only about 10 per cent of Frankish farmers remaining free landholders.

Eventually, a succession of weak Frankish kings under the Merovingian dynasty (c.500–751) led to the practice of actual power being wielded by a royal official known as the major domus or mayor of the palace. Through this office the next Frankish dynasty, the Carolingian, rose to power. One of the early mayors, Charles Martel (d. 741), earned his military reputation as an ardent campaigner, consolidating the power of his office and expanding Frankish hegemony in Austrasia and Neustria in what is now roughly northern France and north-west Germany (Map 2.1). He was able to defeat a Neustrian army near Malmedy (716), and again near Cambrai (717). But the mayor faced a new challenge to his rule with the expansion of Islam into the Iberian peninsula.


Map 2.1 Merovingian and Carolingian France.

Islam exploded out of the Arabian peninsula in the decades after the death of Muhammad in 632. Within a generation, Muslim armies had destroyed the Sassanid Persian Empire and taken half of the Byzantine Empire’s possessions away. By 661 the new ruling dynasty in Damascus, the Umayyads, continued to push eastward towards the Indus River and westward across north Africa, reaching Morocco in the early eighth century. During this time of unprecedented military success, Islamic law developed the concept of Dar al-Islam (the ‘House of Islam’) and Dar al-Harb(‘House of War’). In accordance with the Koran, Christians and Jews in occupied zones were placed under a protected status as Dhimmis or ‘People of the Book’ because all three religions shared Hebraic origin. Their worshipping rights protected, Christian and Jews in Umayyad territories had only to pay an additional poll tax in return for military protection – theoretically they could not be raided or attacked in any way. Still, despite Islam’s cultural magnificence and tolerant attitude toward Christian and Jewish subjects already within their territory, Muslim leaders continued to thirst for more conquests to fill their coffers, thereby expanding the Dar al-Islam to new regions. This expansion extended into south-western Europe with far-ranging consequences.

In 711 an Arab-led Muslim army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from north Africa and quickly conquered Visigothic Spain. This initial invasion force was an army of occupation, consisting of 12,000 Berber foot soldiers and only 300 cavalry.1 Within a year of this conquest, the Muslims began raiding north of the Pyrenees. These initial raids were relatively minor, but in 732 a large Muslim army led by the dynamic and popular governor of Spain, Abd ar-Rahman, crossed the Pyrenees and invaded Aquitaine. After crushing the duke of Aquitaine’s army near the city of Bordeaux, the invading army advanced north along an old Roman road toward the city of Orleans in Burgundy.

The constitution of Islamic armies varied by region and purpose. Abd ar-Rahman’s army was not an army of occupation, but rather a large expeditionary force of between 20,000 and 25,000 cavalry, supported by a small contingent of infantry. The high percentage of cavalry present indicates a raiding rather than occupying force, rebutting a popular belief that the Muslims were bent on including western Europe in their empire. It consisted mostly of recently converted Berbers and other Moors, led by Arabs. Riding high on the tide of a century of military victory and territorial conquest, this Muslim army was driven by religious fervour that translated into a seemingly irresistible militarism. The pace of Islamic conquest forced the Arabs to include more junds or regional armies in their ranks. These junds fought for booty more than ideology, swelling the ranks of Islamic armies in times of victory, and evaporating in times of trouble. The Muslim army that marched toward Frankish territory in 732 was a well-armed, disciplined and experienced army of plunderers.

Islamic cavalry in the eighth century comprised both light and heavy units and was relatively lightly armoured and mobile. Heavy lancers balanced by stirrups were not yet common in north Africa so mounted shock combat consisted of charges with sword and light lance. And unlike classical heavy cavalry and their Byzantine counterparts, Muslim heavy cavalrymen were comfortable dismounting and fighting on foot next to their infantry. Light cavalry were also present, using tribal weapons such as javelins and bows as their primary offensive arms. But the famous Islamic horse-archer using the powerful composite short-bow was mostly a product of Islamic conversions of Eurasian steppe nomads, most notably the Seljuk Turks, and was not a decisive factor in this expedition north of the Pyrenees.

During battle Muslim horsemen usually arrayed in three formations (centre, and right and left wings) made up of dense masses of tribal contingents, then charged as a wild unarticulated mass, striking as heavy cavalry shock troops with their swords and light lances. These mounted troops often attacked at dawn, while infantry attacks were launched during cover of darkness or from ambush during the warmest and coldest time of the year. Heavy infantry fought in units eight to eleven ranks deep, with light infantry archers on the flanks or in the front, shouting the Islamic battle cry ‘Allahu Akbar’ (‘God is great’) as they met the enemy. If the initial attack failed to break up enemy formations, the Muslim troops would retreat and re-form, then attack again in an unarticulated charge.

Word of the Muslim invasion reached Charles Martel while he was engaged in operations along the upper Danube River, forcing him back to Austrasia to evaluate the situation. The duke of Aquitaine, who escaped the debacle at Bordeaux, urged the mayor to move south immediately to intercept the Muslims, but Charles, perhaps knowing something of the nature of Muslim armies, wanted to wait until they were over-encumbered with plunder. Islamic armies had a tendency to acquire large amounts of treasure, slowing the pace of the raid. And Muslim commanders were reluctant to discourage looting because the majority of their troops fought solely for that purpose. As the laden Muslim army neared Poitiers, the Frankish mayor readied his army to meet it.

Charles Martel’s army included his loyal nobles, their retainers and servants, as well as Neustrian and Austrasian allies, those Aquitanians who had escaped north to fight, and a large number of infantry conscripts swelling the ranks to protect their homes. The total number varies from 30,000 to 80,000, but only 15,000 to 20,000 were actually mounted, and it was this mounted contingent that actually rode toward the Arab forces in early October 732. Most, if not all, of the Frankish nobles and their retainers were mounted, which gave Charles the strategic mobility he required to move from Austrasia to the area near Tours in pursuit of the Muslim army.

The Frankish army that faced the Muslim horsemen at Tours was in the process of evolution. It was no longer the purely infantry force that met Narses at Casilinum in 554, nor was it a force that fought from horseback. Charles Martel’s army was primarily a force of mounted infantry who dismounted to fight. Once dismounted, these troops fought in the same dense, unarticulated fashion as they had centuries earlier, with men from the same estate or towns standing together and feudal vassals gathered around their lords.

Still, Martel did possess some heavy cavalry as shock troops, perhaps as many as a few thousand. The wealthier noble horsemen wore mail hauberks and helmets, and carried round convex shields and used their long swords as frequently as their lances for attack, while lesser vassals wore little or no protection, usually just a helmet, carrying a shield and employing a light lance, long sword or scramasax. These less armoured heavy cavalry often used javelins as well, creating a fusion of heavy and light cavalry. Stirrups, if present at all, were certainly not a common feature on Frankish cavalry in the early eighth century. When widely used in the early ninth century, stirrups would revolutionize mounted shock combat and lead to the dominance of heavy cavalry on European battlefields.

As Charles secretly moved his army to intercept the invaders, the Muslims halted temporarily by the fortified city of Poitiers. Leaving part of his army to invest the city, Abd ar-Rahman advanced to the Loire River, near Tours, plundering en route. The sack of Poitiers undoubtedly provided the Arab commander’s army with a great deal of plunder, adding to the considerable amount of treasure acquired since the invasion began. But the Muslim army became disorganized while besieging Poitiers. Discipline was suffering because of the greed for spoil, and the army was totally oblivious to the approaching Franks. Abd ar-Rahman was preparing to besiege Tours when his scouts suddenly discovered Charles Martel’s army marching toward the city. Rather than expose his plunder to danger, Abd ar-Rahman dispatched it south in a wagon train, then lifted the siege of Tours and withdrew slowly back to Poitiers. Martel pursued the retreating Muslim army, almost certainly with his mounted contingent.

For six days the Muslims withdrew, fighting delaying actions and pressing for Poitiers. Using his superior mobility, Martel finally outmanoeuvred the Arab general by bringing his mounted army parallel to the Muslims’ escape route, forcing Abd ar-Rahman to offer battle. The Muslims made camp between Tours and Poitiers, probably near Cenon on the Vienne River. The Franks encamped near the Muslims and prepared for the coming engagement.

As dawn broke, Charles Martel deployed his troops on some high ground, forming his dismounted infantry into a number of large unarticulated battle squares (Map 2.2(a)). Charles realized his mounted warriors were no match for the skilled Muslim horsemen, and so he dismounted most of them to strengthen his battle squares. He did, however, maintain a small contingent of cavalry in order to counter the Muslims’ greater mobility and plug breaches in his infantry lines. The Frankish mayor harboured a realistic fear that his conscript infantry would break under the ferocity of Muslim charges, so he placed his veteran heavy infantry in the very front ranks of the battle squares to better resist the Muslim mounted attacks. Martel’s battle squares were probably very similar to the defensive shield wall formations that the Anglo-Saxons used against Norman heavy cavalry charges 334 years later at the battle of Hastings.

The Muslims opened the battle just after dawn with several cavalry charges (Map 2.2(b)). These attacks were subsequently repeated all along the lines, but their piecemeal nature made little impression on the Frankish shield walls. The Muslims enjoyed much more success using their horse archers against the lightly armoured or unarmoured conscripts in the centre of Charles’s battle squares. Throughout the morning and afternoon, groups of Moors and Berbers threw themselves again and again at the Frankish lines, but the defenders’ shield walls held (Map 2.2(c)). Unable to co-ordinate a unified and cohesive charge against the Franks, Abd ar-Rahman lost many of his horsemen in small unit charges. As evening approached, the exhausted Frankish veterans in the front ranks began to fail and the Muslims opened several breaches in the lines, cutting their way into the vulnerable centre of the Frankish army.

At the very moment when the battle seemed to be turning in favour of the Muslims, word spread among those hacking their way into the Frankish centre that the Franks were looting their camp. Whether by accident or design, a contingent of Frankish horse rode around the Muslims’ left flank and rear and began attacking the raiders’ tents and wagons. More concerned with their war treasure than the battle at hand, the Muslim attack wavered, with some horsemen breaking away from the fighting in order to rush back and protect their threatened base (Map 2.2(d)). Sensing a change of fortune, Charles ordered his troops onto the offensive. The force and suddenness of the Frankish counter-attack surprised Abd ar-Rahman and he was left exposed as he attempted to rally his retreating troops. Frankish horsemen found the Arab general and killed him (Map 2.2(e)). News of Abd ar-Rahman’s death turned a frantic Muslim withdrawal into a general rout. As darkness fell, a furious Frankish counter-attack forced the Muslim army back into its camp.

The Franks returned to the protection of their own camp and spent an uneasy night on constant alert to a Muslim nocturnal attack. But, to their great surprise, the Franks discovered the next morning that the Muslims had fled during the night, abandoning all their plunder. In all, perhaps 10,000 Arabs were killed at Tours. Most of the Muslim wounded were offered no quarter, given their previous record of murder and pillage in Christian territories. Frankish casualties went unrecorded, but were probably moderate. Charles refused to pursue the fleeing Muslims, preferring instead to take the treasure for himself and his army.

Charles Martel’s victory over the Muslim invaders was a near-run thing. Still, the battle illustrated how competent a commander the Frankish mayor was. He understood the strength and weaknesses of his own army, and those of his enemy. On word of the Muslim expedition, Martel quickly organized and dispatched an intercepting force, mounting it for greater strategic mobility. Once battle was offered, Martel showed his understanding of the weapon systems. Unwilling to meet the more experienced Moorish and Berber cavalry on the field, he dismounted his own troops and placed his veterans in the forward ranks of the shield walls, giving his troops the ability to withstand a full day of Muslim cavalry charges. Most importantly, he seized the initiative when he saw the Muslim charge falter on word of a successful Frankish flank attack on the Muslim camp. This decisiveness changed the momentum of the battle and carried the day.



Map 2.2. The Battle of Tours, 732. (a) Phase I: Finally forcing Abd ar-Rahman’s Muslim army to offer battle after a six-day pursuit, Charles Martel’s Frankish army forms on high ground, his dismounted heavy infantry forming the fronts of several unarticulated battle squares. The Muslim army deploys into three similarly unarticulated wings composed of heavy and light cavalry as well as horse archers. The Muslim army closes the gap with the Franks deployed on the hillside (1). (b) Phase II: Abd ar-Rahman opens the action, charging the Franks across the breadth of their line (1), but the assault lacks co-ordination, being executed by small units of horsemen rather than larger, more cohesive elements. The attacks continue through the day, and though the Frankish shield-walls stand firm, casualties among the unarmoured Frankish conscripts in the centre of the squares begin to mount as the Muslims’ horse archers make their presence felt (2). (c) Phase III: As nightfall approaches, the Muslim attacks begin to weaken the veteran Frankish heavy infantry (1). Gaps begin to appear in the line (2) through which Muslim cavalry make several breaches, penetrating into the centre of the Frankish battle squares. While the battle rages between Abd ar-Rahman’s horsemen and Charles’s infantry squares, a portion of the Frankish cavalry reserve swings past the Muslim left and rear and strikes the treasure-laden tents and wagons of the Muslim baggage train (3). (d) Phase IV: As word that their plunder is in jeopardy begins to spread, Muslim cavalrymen turn away from the battle area and move to protect their threatened base (1). Recognizing his good fortune, Charles orders his army to counter-attack (2). (e) Phase V: The speed and ferocity of the Frankish counter-attack catches Abd ar-Rahman by surprise and the Muslim leader is caught and killed by Frankish cavalry (1) while trying to rally his retreating army. News of his death turns withdrawal into rout, and the Islamic forces flee back to the remains of their camp (2). As night falls, Charles order his army into camp, planning to renew the attack in the morning, but daylight finds the Muslim forces gone, having abandoned their plunder and fled.

The Frankish victory at Tours was also a great strategic victory for Christian Europe, blunting a significant raiding expedition into southern Gaul. However, the victory in itself did not save western Europe from the onslaught of Islam. Charles Martel would face other Muslim raiders in southern France, and a persistent Islamic presence north of the Pyrenees would not be vanquished until his son Pepin III (‘the Short’) pushed the Muslims from Septimania in 759. The armies of Christianity and Islam continued to battle south of the Pyrenees for another seven centuries, with the last Islamic outpost of Granada in Spain surrendering to Isabella and Ferdinand in January 1492.

The battle of Tours was also a great political victory for Charles Martel, securing his position as the most powerful man in France. The Carolingians controlled the office of the mayor of the palace from the mid-seventh century until 751, when the pope crowned Martel’s son Pepin (r. 751–768) as the new Frankish king, sanctioning an official change of dynasty. The Carolingian dynasty ruled France until 987. The ascent of Pepin’s son Charlemagne to the Frankish throne in 768 ushered in the first post-classical empire in western Europe.

The grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne (from Carolus magnus in Latin, ‘Charles the Great’ in English) built on the accomplishments of his father and grandfather. During his forty-six-year reign between 768 and 814, Charlemagne undertook an unprecedented fifty-four military campaigns, greatly expanding the territory of the Frankish kingdom. And even though the Frankish army was relatively small compared to armies of the classical period (modern estimates vary from 5,000 to 35,000 men, excluding attendants), it was sufficient to carve out the largest state western Europe had seen since the fall of the Western Roman Empire some 300 years earlier. His impressive military and political achievements even won him the title of ‘emperor of the Holy Romans’ from the papacy on Christmas Day 800.

Charlemagne’s campaigns took him to many areas in Europe. In 773 he led his army into Italy, crushing the Lombards and crowning his son king of Italy. Four years later Charlemagne crossed the Pyrenees into northern Spain. This campaign proved disappointing. Despite the annihilation of his rearguard at Roncesvalles by the Basques in 778, Charlemagne and his successors were successful in eventually establishing the Spanish March, a string of fortifications in Catalonia which served as a defensive bulwark against Muslim raiding and a future base of operations for the Christian reconquest of Spain in the eleventh century.

Charlemagne was more successful in his eastern campaigns in Germany. In 787 he invaded Bavaria and brought that region under his rule. In 790 his Frankish armies marched east along the Danube and met and utterly eradicated the Avar empire in the Balkans, seizing wealth accumulated in two centuries of raiding and adding it to his own treasury. Perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest success came in Frisia and Saxony, a region in northern Germany between the Rhine and Elbe rivers. Beginning in 772, Charlemagne set his sights on the conquest and conversion of these regions, but resistance was fierce (Charlemagne campaigned in Saxony in 772, 785, 792–793 and 798–803). It was not until 804, after eighteen annual campaigns, that Saxony was finally pacified and added to the Carolingian domain.

Charlemagne never developed a regular standing army; instead, he relied on feudal levies to raise his forces. It did not take the emperor long to assimilate new regions into his military machine. Just two years after bringing Saxony into the kingdom, Charlemagne created a sliding scale of military contributions, ordering five Saxon vassals to equip a sixth to campaign in Spain, and two to equip a third for Bohemia, while all were required to campaign against regional threats. In 807 he issued a capitulary decreeing all nobles in the realm holding a benefice (a lease of land) were obligated to undertake military service. If a noble failed to muster for war, he risked the confiscation of his estate. Charlemagne perfected this system to the point where he could raise several annual levies and conduct operations on multiple fronts, including Germany, Bohemia, Brittany and Spain.

The composition and equipment of Charlemagne’s army was also continuously evolving. Initially, the Carolingian army comprised mostly infantry, but as campaigning took him farther and farther from his base in Austrasia, Charlemagne soon relied increasingly on mounted troops over infantry. His numerous capitularies point to the raised status of cavalry. Between 792 and 793 he issued regulations requiring vassals to have a horse, shield, lance, sword, dagger, bow, quiver and arrows. In other royal decrees wealthier nobles were ordered to come to war wearing mail and were asked to bring rations for three months of service and clothing for six. Furthermore, these greater magnates were to make certain their own vassals came on campaign with a standardized panoply consisting of shield, spear, bow and twelve arrows. Even attendants were required to be armed with bows.

Charlemagne’s military success was not founded on the decisive engagement; indeed history records him present at only three battles during his lengthy reign. The Carolingian emperor’s success was instead based on a well-trained and experienced feudal fighting force wearing down the enemy through a strategy of attrition, and the ability to raise several armies for annual campaigns in different regions. He also recognized the impending threat to his empire, building and garrisoning forts along his borders with the Muslims, Danes and Slavs. He even went so far as to try to maintain his superiority in military equipment by threatening the forfeiture of all property to anyone selling mail hauberks to foreigners, and death to any who exported Carolingian swords out of the country.

Finally, perhaps Charlemagne’s greatest military legacy was his emphasis on cavalry as an instrument of strategic mobility. And though the stirrup-stabilized lancer, probably present in limited numbers during Charlemagne’s reign, did not revolutionize battle tactics in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, heavy cavalry’s importance as the centrepiece of the Carolingian tactical system was a harbinger of things to come. As we shall see, several events in the ninth and tenth centuries elevated the position of this shock cavalry on the battlefields of western Europe and led to their dominance in medieval warfare – the invasions of the Muslims, Magyars and Vikings, and Europe’s response, the rise of feudalism and heavy cavalry’s adoption of the stirrup.

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